FILM / Go North: the kids are cuter there

Quentin Curtis
Saturday 30 July 1994 23:02

CHILDREN'S cinema, like teenage fiction, is a concept that reeks of compromise. Condescension and calculation vie for their share of the piggy- bank. Are the movies grown-up enough to talk down to 10-year- olds, who seem to be their target audience most of the time? Such is the question posed by North (U), Rob Reiner's third sally into the junior genre, after Stand by Me (1986) and The Princess Bride (1987). The best that can be said for it is that it is not Oliver Stone's bio-pic of Colonel Ollie. The worst is that its sentimental compass seems magnetically set at saccharine.

North is based on an Alan Zweibel novel, the attractions of which for movie-makers are easy to see. Slim, tender and topical, it tells the story of a small boy, North (we never learn if that's his forename or surname), who divorces his squabbling parents and advertises for replacements, travelling the world in search of the right pair. He auditions couples from Texas to Alaska, Peking to Paris, before finding - cue homely, uncontroversial moral - there's no place like home.

It's not giving away anything Rob Reiner hasn't, in many interviews, to reveal that the action takes place in North's head, the far-off places merely the topography of a far- out dream. In fact, the main problem is that this isn't made clear enough. We're supposed to recognise immediately that this is a child's conception of the world, as narrow and confused as a cathode-ray tube. So, Texas is full of dancing cowboys and girls; China is just a tableau from The Last Emperor; and when North looks for Amish parents, Kelly McGillis and Alexander Godunov reprise their roles from Witness.

Leaving aside the fact that much of the audience will have been in their prams when Witness came out in 1985, the real problem is in how poorly Reiner realises North's interior world. It is a childish world seen through the ponderous eyes of adulthood. All the children in it, including Elijah Wood as North, seem over-directed, reacting with programmed cuteness. Their lines have a hack's glibness rather than a child's innocence. The film develops into a face-off between North and his friend Winchell (Matthew McCurley), who edits the school newspaper and begins to have ideas about a kids' revolution. Even Winchell's name is a knowing adult reference (to the columnist Walter Winchell), and his lines ape macho talk.

You wonder who the film is aimed at, so many are the cult cameos: Bruce Willis as a largely absentee narrator, with a scene in a bunny suit; Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire as Texas hillbillies; Jon Lovitz as a cigar- chomping lawyer. Reiner is a mechanical director, but with the right genre material (A Few Good Men, Misery) he makes smooth entertainment. Children's cinema, however, needs the airiness and spontaneity of myth. North feels as forced and heavy-hearted as homework.

The Sandlot Kids (U) owes a lot to the Reiner school of kids' movies, but it's better than North. Its model is Stand by Me: the same nostalgic voice-over; the rites-of-passage plot; the adolescent friends, with the same group dynamics - in fact, almost the same characters, including a fat one and one with spectacles. Their obsession is baseball, played in impromptu, scoreless, endless games, with a dusty sandlot for a diamond. Our hero, Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry), new to the area with his mother and sullen stepfather, starts off an outcast, almost incredibly inept even at throwing the ball, before the team's star player extends the coaching manual, and the hand of friendship, to him.

The film is a few rewrites away from being a minor classic. It needed tightening, and its themes should have been pointed up, especially Scotty's ambivalence towards his stepfather, which is only alluded to. But there is much to enjoy. The supernatural is more confidently handled than in North. The boys believe balls knocked into the neighbouring yard are devoured by a monster. We're kept guessing whether it's a monster of the boys' minds, a metaphor for the frightening world outside childish games.

Though all but the two lead children are mediocre, the adult actors, including Karen Allen and James Earl Jones, are first- rate. There is also fine camerawork from Anthony Richmond (Nicolas Roeg's former photographer). One sequence perfectly recreates the soaring trajectory and sudden plummet of the fiendish catching chance kids in my day used to call 'a sky-er'.

Necronomicon (18) is a portmanteau horror film (containing three tales from H P Lovecraft) but any resemblance to the classic Dead of Night ends there. There is no normality for the nightmare to burst from: all is portentous camera movement, stressed-out music and spattered gore. The middle tale is the best - the old one about the elixir of eternal life. There is one memorably repulsive image, of a head reduced to bone and shiny mucus, and one eye, wobbling, soft and floppy as a fried egg.

Thumbelina (U) is a cartoon about a girl the size of a matchstick who meets a miniature, fairy prince, loses him for ever, and then . . . you know the rest. It starts well, like a more restrained Aladdin, but loses its way. There are songs from Barry Manilow, with more rhyme than reason ('After the rain goes / There are rainbows'). The press notes were printed on a jigsaw. About half-way through, I was itching to get at it.

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